Harassment of channels
Although the country’s electronic news media industry is reaching a growing audience, attempts have been made in recent years to curtail the viewers’ right to watch channels of their choice. The most infamous example was the Musharraf dispensation’s decree in 2007 that cable operators take certain channels offline. Yet despite the shift from a dictatorship to a democracy, similar attempts have been witnessed since the 2008 elections. Some parts of the country – Karachi in particular – have witnessed this predicament during the past few days, when certain news channels have been taken offline by cable operators, reportedly upon pressure from the government.
Given that governmental attempts to muzzle the media have historically mostly been extra-legal, it is encouraging that in the current instance the Supreme Court has ordered the chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to ensure the uninterrupted transmission of the channels that had been blocked by cable operators. That the court based its order on Articles 19 and 19A of the constitution, which refer to the freedom of speech and the right to information, establishes that the SC has laid down new ground rules to be followed in case of resentment against any media network or its reportage. This step had been long overdue. This government and the previous one have on many occasions accused the media of transgressing its boundaries. Media organisations meanwhile claim the right to independent reporting. The only place where such a difference of opinion can be resolved is in a court of law. The SC has, through its order on Friday, delivered this message clearly.
Resort to legal dispute-settling mechanisms is important for the credibility of the government. Since cable operators have often been pressured to restrict access to certain channels, a culture of intimidation has been created. Not only does this run contrary to the spirit of the freedom of speech doctrine, it also defies the logic of a market-driven economy. In case of harassment, as is happening in certain parts of Karachi, even after the SC’s orders, cable operators should be encouraged to approach the courts.